The Sidewinder, by Simon Maltman
[Note: This book was provided free of charge by the author. All thoughts and opinions are my own.]
As someone who has read a few stories and novels from the author , there are a few things that one reliably knows about a noir work that one is reading from the author. Someone will die. There will be music or poetry involved somehow. There will be flashbacks. Casual drug or alcohol use and/or unglamorous and possibly adulterous shagging will be involved. The story will have something to do with Belfast. Even knowing all of this going into this novel–and yes, all of these things are present here–there are still thrills and surprises to be found. Even when one knows what is going on, and that takes a while, one still has to figure out why, and while the clever reader will likely be able to figure out a few of the loose ends, the story as a whole is both dark and compelling and a worthwhile read. Maltman has a secure place in Belfast noir and that will only continue with this excellent novel that begins innocuously enough and then goes very dark.
The book is itself divided into three parts. In the first part, we see the point of view of Andrew, a beat writer for an Ulster newspaper, bad husband to wife Jenny, and someone who becomes far more interesting than he first appears. About a third of the way or so through the novel, the book changes from being an ineffectual novel about an ineffectual reporter writing about a dead friend and becomes a far darker story about a very evil man. The second part of the story is about Johnny, an outsider to the band but someone who felt more inside than the awkward and uncomfortable and emotionally repressed Andrew. He happens to be a police detective who is on leave because of stress and of course the novelist provides a lot of stress in his life through this look at the past and present of a band where everyone has gone their separate ways, but where two of the bandmates have been taken too soon in what appear at first to be drug overdoses but about which there is suspicion far more is involved than merely recreational drug use. The coda brings the two stories together in a compelling and dramatic and devastating way.
In reading a story like this, I have some definite and complicated feelings. For one, there is the dreadful suffering that results from engaging in and trying to bury secrets. Andrew is, although a very dark character, a very Nathanish character as way in some aspects, like his awkwardness and his writing and his concerts over masters of incest. The Sidewinder is, as is quite common in good fiction, a complicated reference in that it refers to the name of the fictional band that five young men were in that gave them some modest success before tearing them apart, as well as the complicated process by which one finds out dark truths about oneself and about others. Ultimately, this is a book without any real heroes, as all of the adult characters are engaged in some sort of dark game–whether that involve affairs, drug and alcohol use, violence, politics, or other sorts of corruption. If you like Belfast noir fiction, though, this book provides both the compelling story and characters as well as the flavor of Northern Ireland that one looks for in this sort of book, and it marks another triumph for the author.
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